Wired | Mar 2, 2012
By Spencer Ackerman
In less time than it takes to play a turn in Words With Friends, smartphone users can report a “suspicious person” to the West Virginia Department of Homeland Security.
The domestic counterterrorism agency’s West Virginia branch, in association with the West Virginia governor’s office, unveiled a new mobile app called the Suspicious Activity Reporting Application this week. “With the assistance of our citizens, important information can quickly get into the hands of our law enforcement community allowing them to provide better protection,” Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin said in a statement. The app is available in the Apple App Store and the Android Market.
I downloaded it onto my phone. The interface is simple. After informing you that you should dial 911 for an actual emergency and asking if you want to submit your geolocation information, the app is fundamentally a camera function. You can annotate the image you capture with date and location (if you didn’t enable the auto-geolocation function); additional details like a “Subject’s” name, gender, eye color, “hair style” and more; and vehicle information if applicable. And you can submit your own information, allowing the authorities to contact you, or choose to submit it anonymously.
Once you click the green “Submit Report” bar, the picture you’ve snapped and the information you’ve recorded goes to the West Virginia Intelligence Fusion Center, a partnership between state law enforcement and the Department of Homeland Security. “The longer you wait the less accurate eyewitness information becomes and evidence fades,” the fusion center’s director, Thom Kirk, said in the statement.
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This isn’t the first time that law enforcement has branched out into mobile applications. Kentucky’s state homeland security division launched “Eyes and Ears on Kentucky” for the iPhone last year. Its interface is different, but its functionality is the same.
On its face, there’s nothing about the app that protects either the civil liberties of citizens or the busy schedules of West Virginia homeland security operatives. You don’t have to affirm that you have evidence of a crime, or even a suspected crime, to send information to the Fusion Center. Nor is it clear how long the Fusion Center can keep information on U.S. citizens or persons sent to it through the app. (More broadly, the guidelines for the nationwide network of homeland security Fusion Centers don’t spell out so-called “minimization” procedures for any of the information they collect.)
In other words, there’s nothing in the app to stop you from snapping a picture of your annoying neighbor and sending it to the attention of federal and state counterterrorism agents in West Virginia, who can keep information on your neighbor’s face, body and perhaps his vehicle for an unspecified period of time.
It’s also unclear why West Virginia thinks its citizens need app-based suspicious activity reporting. A February study from the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security at Duke University found that not a single plot or alleged plot involving Muslim-American terrorism occurred in the state in 2011. (.PDF) A Washington Post investigative project in 2010 found that West Virginia was one of only 15 states that has no terrorism convictions in state or federal courts since 9/11 and ranked 36th in states receiving federal homeland-security cash in 2009.
“We’re currently looking at our other services to see what else makes sense to move to the mobile platform,” the state’s homeland security director, Jimmy Gianato, said in the statement. It might not be long before the Department of Homeland Security — which has been exploring new spy tools derived from the military — follows suit on a national level.